The most enticing part of the Black Panther extended trailer was, for me, the fact that it sampled Gil Scott-Heron’s iconic 1970 protest poem and song, The Revolution Will Not Be Televised. Not exactly the most promising of genres on the social justice and anti-racism front, Black Panther was supposed to break the mould of superhero movies as we know them and show us what revolution in Hollywood could really look like: Black people in complex roles that see them representing and exploring characters, personalities and plot points beyond that of the hackneyed Black sidekick, roles that don’t kow-tow to a white gaze or points of reference, and that celebrate the complexity of Black identity in the USA today.
But what about the women?
I mean, there is reason to be anxious about how Black women would be portrayed in this movie about Black revolution. When feminist legal scholar Kimberle Crenshawe first coined the term ‘intersectionality’ back in 1989, she was referring to the unique oppression and struggles Black women face by the virtue of being both Black and female. She said that Black women faced oppression on a level that was different from the oppression faced by white women and Black males, since they had two separate forces of dis-privilege working against them, and had to break two barriers of sorts. This concept became a seminal part of critical race theory and teaches us that in order to really break down oppressive power structures, you need an intersectional approach to social justice that is concerned with the most marginalised of all, not one that liberates the most privileged of the oppressed first.
So, when I gleaned Black Panther’s revolutionary aspirations from its trailer, I was intrigued to see just how intersectional this revolution would be. The trailer promised to burn everything down to the ground and to start a new world afresh. But would a revolution for Black media, characters and imagery leave Black women behind?
Well, not very far behind, I guess.
Don’t get me wrong. Black Panther is incredibly enjoyable, and gets a lot of things very very right. It has got a complex plot that sees Black characters exploring tangled, confusing aspects of their identities, and Black women in powerful, impactful and emotive roles that they assume unquestioningly. It continually urges you to imagine alternatives to the white-supremacist world we live in, and shows you the possibility of amalgamating technology and ‘progress’ with cultural traditions that look different from white ones.
The country of Wakanda, which is where Black Panther takes place, is the mythical El Dorado that was presumed (by white folks) to be in South America for centuries but was, of course, in Africa all along. The Black Panther, or T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) is the King of a Wakanda in flux.
The women in Wakanda, like the spy, warrior and object-of-Black-Panther’s affections Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o), and Wakanda’s loyal general Okoye (Danai Gurira) are used to being powerful, and having their opinions and wishes obeyed. They are completely at ease with their power, and are not playing the roles of ‘female’ spies and ‘female’ generals. The women of Wakanda naturally enjoy roles of power and prestige, and are not surprised or humbled by the very fact of occupying them. In the movie, they kick ass, save men and women alike and make complicated decisions about honour and allegiance that again, have nothing to do with either race nor gender.
Which is kind of what we keep asking for in movies: Women exploring difficult and emotive subjects that go beyond their stereotypical femininity and romantic inclinations, and that do not try to end the project of female empowerment at a mere sort of switcher of gender roles. In passing, we see the complexity and depth that women can bring to the table even casually in the everyday living of Wakandan life, like when Nakia stops T’Challa from killing an enemy who was held captive and trained since he was a child.
In Wakanda, sexism does not seem to be a thing: No one is objectified, abused, put down, belittled or questioned for being powerful and female. Even insults, like the one the head of the Jabari tribe threw at Wakanda’s tech-genius inventor princess Shiru, bypass femaleness and focus on her youth and inexperience instead.
Is it a false criticism, though, to watch a movie named Black Panther that was supposed to be the revolution, and wonder why a woman was not heading it? Is it too much to ask for a revolutionary movie’s highlight fight to include a woman instead of two brothers (*yawn*), for women to occupy roles outside of guards, Queen Mothers and spy-cum-love-interests?
It’s a weird place to be, as a brown woman who appreciated Black Panther’s racial politics. Black Panther does have more women in casually powerful and influential roles than most movies, and certainly most superhero movies, but this was supposed to be the revolution. We were supposed to burn it all to the ground and start afresh, to create a blueprint for a new kind of perfect. Black Panther comes tantalisingly close on many fronts but I think I will not be happy until I see a Black woman headlining a superhero movie that doesn’t have the word ‘Black’ in its title.
Co-published with Firstpost.
This piece originally referred to Okaye as T’Challa’s “ex”. This has been corrected.